Category Archives: Colwin Laurie

My favourite books from a year of reading, 2021 – part two, older books

This year, I’m spreading my highlights from a year of reading across two posts. The first piece focused on my favourite ‘recently published’ titles, while this second one puts the spotlight on the best ‘older’ books from my 2021 reading, most of which were written in the 20th century.

These are the backlisted books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to other readers. I’ve summarised each one in this post (in order of reading), but as before, you can find the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton

Subtle, sophisticated and richly imagined, this unsettling collection of Wharton’s Ghost Stories is a veritable treat. Characterised by the tensions between restraint and passion, respectability and impropriety, Wharton’s narratives are rooted in reality, with the ghostly chills mostly stemming from psychological factors. The fear of the unknown, the power of the imagination and the judicious use of supernatural imagery to unnerve the soul are all in evidence here. As one would expect with Wharton, the writing is first class and the characters brilliantly drawn, with sufficient depth and subtlety to appear fully convincing. A wonderfully chilling collection of tales, tapping into the dark side of American history and human relationships.

Lost Cat by Mary Gaitskill

A thoughtful, beautifully-written rumination on love, loss, grief and the nature of pain, especially where our feelings for others are concerned. While staying at a writing retreat in Italy, Gaitskill is cajoled into adopting a scrawny, feral kitten, whom she names Gattino. Not long after Mary and her husband move house, Gattino mysteriously disappears, thereby reawakening various emotions, previously suppressed feelings of guilt surrounding the death of Gaitskill’s father. In many ways, Lost Cat is an exploration of the complexities of human emotion, of how we try to offer love to another individual (or animal), whether they are accepting of it or not. While the Daunt Books edition came out in 2020, this powerful extended essay first appeared in the Granta literary journal in 2009.

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

This loose re-working of the age-old fairy tale is another of Taylor’s marvellous ensemble pieces, very much in line novels such as A View of the Harbour and The Soul of Kindness, where the focus moves from one individual to another as their lives intertwine. The novel is set in Seething, a small seaside town in the early 1950s, and as ever with this author, the characters are brilliantly observed. What I love about this her work are the insights she brings to her characters’ inner lives, their thoughts and interactions with others, and how their experiences and preoccupations reveal themselves over time. There is a combination of depth, complexity and veracity to these individuals that makes them feel human, complete with emotions and motivations that remain relevant some seventy years after publication. Possibly underrated in the Taylor oeuvre, but for me it’s a gem.

Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden

This is a glorious book – an evocative story of nuns, misguided actions and, perhaps most significantly of all, repressed female desire. A small group of Anglican nuns set out to establish a new convent, high up in the Himalayan mountains, a place steeped in beauty and mystery. As the weeks go by, the Sisters begin to fall under the setting’s spell, surrounded by the heady atmosphere of disruption and beauty. Consequently, each Sister becomes obsessed with a particular passion, causing them to neglect their spirituality in favour of more personal desires. Tensions – both sexual and otherwise – abound in this sensual novel, stepped in lush visual imagery. In creating Black Narcissus, Godden has given us a rich exploration of the tensions between competing desires, one that also touches on the follies of colonialism in subtle and memorable ways. Highly recommended, even for devoted fans of the Powell and Pressburger film, such as myself!

Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel by William Trevor

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been working my way through some of William Trevor’s novels – mostly the early ones with their notes of dark comedy and undeniable tragedy. Mrs Eckdorf is very much of a piece with his others from the 1970s, and is something of a bridge between The Boarding-House and The Children of Dynmouth, both of which I loved. The novel’s catalyst is the titular Mrs Eckdorf – a most annoying and invasive woman who has fashioned a career as a photographer, exploiting the lives of unfortunate individuals around the world, their existences touched by devastation. Once again, William Trevor proves himself a master of the tragicomedy, crafting a story that marries humour and poignancy in broadly equal measure.

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

There is something distinctly English about the world that Barbara Comyns portrays in this novel, a surreal eccentricity that could only be found within the England of old. Set in 1911, three years before the advent of the First World War, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead has all the hallmarks of a classic Comyns novel: enchanting, innocent children, caught up in a dysfunctional family; memorable, vivid imagery, typically with an off-kilter edge; and a simple, matter-of-fact delivery that belies the horrors within. Another strikingly creative work from one of Britain’s most singular writers – a darkly humorous novel of great brilliance and originality with an allegorical nod to the First World War.

Chatterton Square by E. H. Young

Probably the richest, most satisfying entry in the British Library’s Women Writers series so far, Chatterton Square is a novel of contrasts, an exploration of lives – women’s lives in particular – in the run-up to the Second World War. On the surface, Chatterton appears to be a straightforward story of two neighbouring families – one relatively happy and functional, the other much more constrained. However, the degree of depth and nuance that Young brings to her portraits of the main characters makes it a particularly compelling read – more so than my description suggests. Set in Upper Radstowe’s Chatterton Square – a place modelled on Bristol’s Clifton – the novel features one of the most pompous characters I’ve encountered this year: Herbert Blackett, a conceited, self-absorbed puritan who considers himself vastly superior to his more relaxed neighbours.

The Island by Ana María Matute (tr. Laura Lonsdale)

Set on the island of Mallorca, shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, The Island is a darkly evocative coming-of-age narrative with a creeping sense of oppression. With her mother no longer alive and her father away in the war, Matia has been taken to the island to live with her grandmother (or ‘abuela’), Aunt Emilia and cousin Borja – not a situation she relishes. Matute excels in her depiction of Mallorca as an alluring yet malevolent setting, drawing on striking descriptions of natural world to reinforce the impression of danger. It’s a brutal and oppressive place, torn apart by familial tensions and longstanding political divisions. As this visceral novella draws to a close, Matia is left with few illusions about the adult world. The beloved fables and fairy tales of her childhood are revealed to be fallacies, contrasting starkly with the duplicity, betrayal and cruelty she sees being played out around her. A unsettling summer read.

The Fortnight in September by R. C. Sherriff

During a trip to Bognor in the early 1930s, R. C. Sherriff was inspired to create a story centred on a fictional family by imagining their lives and, most importantly, their annual September holiday at the seaside resort. While this premise seems simple on the surface, the novel’s apparent simplicity is a key part of its magical charm. Here we have a story of small pleasures and triumphs, quiet hopes and ambitions, secret worries and fears – the illuminating moments in day-to-day life. By focusing on the minutiae of the everyday, Sheriff has crafted something remarkable – a novel that feels humane, compassionate and deeply affecting, where the reader can fully invest in the characters’ inner lives. This is a gem of a book, as charming and unassuming as one could hope for, a throwback perhaps to simpler, more modest times.

Passing by Nella Larsen

Larsen’s 1928 novella Quicksand – which was inspired by Larsen’s own background and life – tells the story of a young mixed-race woman searching for her place in society, lacking a sense of identity in a highly segregated world. In Passing (1929), Larsen takes these themes a step further by exploring the emotional, moral and societal implications of the act of ‘passing’, whereby a light-skinned mixed-race woman passes as white in a society divided by race. Central to Passing is a fascinating yet complex relationship between two middle-class women, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry – both of whom are black but sufficiently light-skinned to pass as white, depending on their personal attitudes and circumstances. Passing is just as much an exploration of the complexities of female friendships as it is of race, touching on themes of desire, jealousy, loyalty, betrayal, victory and victimhood along the way. A superb book, fully deserving of its status as a classic of the Harlem Renaissance. I loved Rebecca Hall’s film adaptation too, currently steaming on Netflix.

Finally, a few books that almost made the cut – all very highly recommended indeed.

  • Meeting in Positano – Goliarda Sapienza’s gorgeous novel of female friendship, set in the glamorous world of 1950s Italy.  
  • The Visitor – Maeve Brennan’s piercing novella of resentment, bitterness and the loneliness of isolation.
  • Family Happiness – Laurie Colwin’s beautifully observed story of familial obligations and our need to be loved.   
  • Tea is So Intoxicating – Mary Essex’s delightfully amusing comedy on the pettiness of village life and the failure to recognise our own limitations.
  • The Feast – Margaret Kennedy’s joyous novel, set in post-war Cornwall. Part morality tale and part family saga/social comedy, it’s an escapist delight!

All that remains is for me to wish you a very Merry Christmas and all the best for the year ahead. Let’s hope it turns out to be significantly less stressful than the last two have been…

Two very good books by Laurie Colwin: Home Cooking + Passion and Affect

Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen (1988)

I have Dorian (at Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau) to thank for introducing me to Laurie Colwin. (You can read more about the background to that intro in my review of Colwin’s 1982 excellent novel, Family Happiness, by clicking on the link.) Alongside fiction, Colwin also wrote about food – specifically, home-cooked food, the kinds of simple yet flavoursome dishes that any good cook needs to have in his or her repertoire.

First published in 1988, and reissued by Fig Tree in this lovely 2012 edition, Home Cooking weaves together Colwin’s recipes, anecdotes and sage words of advice on the joys of cooking and sharing food with friends. In short, it is a delight to read – warm, generous, and completely down-to-earth, just like Colwin herself, I would imagine. In some respects, reading this book feels like having your warmest, smartest, funniest friend over for dinner – someone with a willingness to share their culinary tricks and treats alongside their unmitigated disasters.

There are chapters here on Friday Night Supper, How to Disguise Vegetables and Easy Cooking for Exhausted People. All the recipes seem eminently achievable – tried and trusted versions of Colwin’s family favourites, including Warm Potato Salad with Fried Red Peppers, Orange Ambrosia and Extremely Easy Old-Fashioned Beef Stew (which can be pimped up accordingly once the basics have been mastered). Pot roasts and baked chicken feature heavily, as do eggplants (aubergines) and broccoli, two of Colwin’s favourite vegetables. I will definitely be trying some of her ways with orzo as there’s a packet languishing in my cupboard as we speak.

Orzo with butter and grated cheese is very nice. Orzo with a little ricotta, some chopped parsley and scallion, butter and cheese, is even better. Orzo with chopped broccoli and broccoli di rape is heaven, and it is also a snap. While you cook the orzo, steam the two broccolis—the amounts depend entirely on how many people you are feeding—until tender. Chop and set aside.

Drain the orzo throw in a lump of butter. Stir it in, add the broccoli, some fresh black pepper and some grated cheese, and you have a side dish fit for a visiting dignitary from a country whose politics you admire. (pp. 85-86).

She’s not above sharing some of her kitchen nightmares, either – the culinary disasters that have lingered in her mind. After all, as Colwin generously admits herself, having just served crunchy pasta to her husband’s friends, ‘if all else fails, eat out’.

There’s also a particularly amusing chapter on ‘Repulsive Dinners’ recounting the horrors that Colwin has experienced elsewhere. In this passage, she recalls an invitation to supper in Connecticut where the ‘local markets were full of beautiful produce of all kinds.’ Unfortunately, none of these tempting ingredients found their way into the host’s meal. Instead, ‘an old-fashioned fish bake’ was produced – even those words themselves sounded ominous, as Colwin conveys.

The old-fashioned fish bake was a terrifying production. Someone in the family had gone fishing and had pulled up a number of smallish fish—no one was sure what kind. These were partially cleaned and not thoroughly scaled and then flung into a roasting pan. Perhaps to muffle their last screams, they were smothered in a thick blanket of sour cream and then pelted with raw chopped onion.

As the coup de grâce, they were stuck in a hot oven for a brief period of time until their few juices run out and the sour cream had a chance to become grainy. With this we were served boiled frozen peas and a salad with iceberg lettuce. (p. 153)

What I love most about this book is the way Colwin writes – hopefully you’ll get a flavour of her style from the passage I’ve quoted above.

In summary then, Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen is a wonderful collection of essays, recipes and reflections on the joys of simple yet delicious dishes. An ideal present for any food lover, especially the unpretentious ones!

Passion and Affect (1974)

I’ve also been reading some of Colwin’s short stories over the past few weeks, dipping in and out of her bittersweet collection Passion and Affect. Colwin writes beautifully about quiet, unshowy people, many of whom are drifting through life, searching for happiness or fulfilment, even if they can’t quite recognise it when they find it. While not necessarily outsiders, many of Colwin’s characters are somewhat odd or idiosyncratic, written with a kind of humanity that makes them seem entirely recognisable despite their inherent strangeness. Here we have stories of people falling in and out of love, not quite connecting through mismatched expectations, failing to compensate for their respective flaws and imperfections.

As one might expect with any collection of short stories, some pieces will resonate more strongly than others, so I’ll focus on a few of my favourites from the fourteen included here.

In The Water Rats (probably my favourite story), we meet Max Waltzer, a thoughtful, successful man who adores his wife and four children so much that his happiness threatens to overwhelm him. For Max, the fear of potential tragedy manifests itself in the form of water rats, recently sighted on the nearby shoreline.

In the beginning of the spring, geese flew in V formation. Max watched them from the bay window. He looked out over the water and saw the first of the small craft battling its way to an old mooring. On the weekends he liked to sit by the bay window and watch his part of the Sound. It soothed him, and it gave him a sense of propriety to see the latticework gazebo, firm on its slope. A family of barn swallows was building a nest in its thatched roof. (p. 49)

This is a beautifully written story in which a man must come to terms with his fear of loss – a worry that poses a more significant threat to his wellbeing than any hypothetical catastrophe.

In Children, Dogs and Desperate Men, a woman slips into a dalliance with a married man – a cartographer she meets at her cousin’s engagement party – even though she knows it’s unlikely to lead to anything lasting. As with many of Colwin’s characters, Elizabeth is somewhat fragile, viewing herself as ‘shaken and out of place’, still recovering from an earlier unhappy love affair. This touching, wryly humorous story ends on an unresolved note, leaving the reader to wonder what might happen in the future.

This dry (and frequently direct) style of humour runs through several of Colwin’s stories, perhaps most noticeably in The Big Plum, one of the best pieces in the collection. Harry, a supermarket manager, studying for a degree in art history, becomes fixated on Binnie Chester, a checkout girl who reminds him of Vermeer’s famous painting, The Girl with the Pearl Earring. Harry studies Binnie closely, fantasising about her home life in ‘an old house of ruined elegance’ with her vaguely tragic relatives – perhaps a rakish father and a faded, abstracted grandmother. Somewhat inevitably, Harry’s dreams are punctured when he finally plucks up the courage to talk to Binnie out of hours, an exchange laced with humour and poignancy as the normality of her life is ultimately revealed.

I’ll finish with a final quote that gives a hint of Colwin’s skills in conveying character. Her descriptions are often memorable and distinctive, just like the individuals themselves.

Holly was impeccable: she had not opted for neatness, it had been thrust upon her by nature. She had simple, unadorned features, and thick straight hair that fell unalterably to her shoulders. Clothes on her looked somehow cleaner and more starched than they did on other people. (p. 89)

Passion and Affect is published by Harper Perennial; personal copy.

Family Happiness by Laurie Colwin

Back in November, I received a lovely handwritten letter from Dorian (at Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau) which contained a personalised recommendation for the writer Laurie Colwin. In his letter, Dorian described Colwin’s books as being very New York-y: wry rather than funny, bittersweet but not sentimental, and Jewish, albeit in a low-key kind of way. He made them sound right up my street; a little Woody Allen-ish in style, back in the days when his films were good.

In particular, Dorian mentioned Colwin’s 1982 novel Family Happiness, clearly a favourite; he’d revisited it a few years earlier and it had totally held up. Off I went in search of a copy; the book doesn’t appear to be in print in the UK, but fortunately I was able to find one online. What follows below is my review of this novel – a beautifully observed story of familial obligations and our need to feel loved and valued, especially by those we’re closest to.

In a nutshell, I *adored* this book and hope to pick up more of Colwin’s work in the future.

Central to the novel is Polly Demarest, the accommodating middle child of Wendy and Henry Solo-Miller, the dual heads of a traditional New York Jewish family. Polly is married to another Henry, Henry Demarest, a successful, well-respected lawyer, who in turn is wedded to his work. The couple have two wonderful children (Pete, aged nine, and Dee-Dee, aged seven), a comfortable home and few if any financial worries.

On the surface, Polly seems to have the perfect life; she works part-time as a research co-ordinator in educational studies, an interesting, fulfilling role that give her two days a week at home to spend time with the children; she is a terrific cook and works hard around the house to make life for her husband as smooth as possible; she is open, straightforward, and an excellent mediator. In short, everything in Polly’s life seems ordered and well-catered for.

She had never given anyone the slightest pause. Her family doted on her, but no one felt it was necessary to pay much attention to someone as study, upright, cheerful, and kind as she. (p. 6)

Nevertheless, there is a downside for Polly in all of this. Her kindness and accepting nature mean that she is sorely taken for granted by her family – not just her husband, Henry, but also the Solo-Millers who all come with their own individual faults and failings.

Most notable in this respect is Polly’s mother, Wendy, who holds her daughter to the highest moral standards, chastising Polly for ‘neglecting’ her children’s welfare in favour of a job that appears unnecessary – clearly of secondary importance to Polly’s familial responsibilities, as far as Wendy is concerned. This, accompanied by Wendy’s adoration of her eldest child, Paul – a sombre lawyer who appears to have little in the way of a personality – is galling to say the least. Colwin’s insights into Wendy and her husband, Henry – another lawyer, this one prone to the occasional ‘flicker of disapproval’ across the breakfast table – are brilliantly done.

There is another brother too, Henry Jnr, whose job as an engineer, Czech wife, and rather casual attitude at the dinner table all prove disappointing to Polly’s mother, a woman who struggles to understand anything that falls outside the traditional Solo-Miller moral codes.

If Polly had told her mother that the family Wendy had gotten was more interesting than the family she had bargained for, Wendy would have told her that an interesting family did not strike her as an attractive idea. Families were not meant to be interesting. Wendy believed that life should be predictable. The unpredictable she considered rather vulgar. (pp. 98–99).

This is all brought into sharp relief for Polly when she meets and falls in love with Lincoln Bennett, a talented painter who values Polly for who she is, not for what she can do for those around her. Although Lincoln is something of a lone wolf, a confirmed bachelor who would never be happy living with a long-term partner, he is just as captivated by Polly as she is by him. With his boyish good looks and relaxed manner, Lincoln is the exact opposite of the world Polly has been constrained by. He knows the Solo-Millers as acquaintances and considers them to be smug, self-contained and resolute in their own superiority, typically to the exclusion of anyone they deem inferior.

What Colwin does so well here is to illustrate how the ongoing affair with Lincoln causes Polly to question various aspects of her life. Her functional marriage to Henry, the lack of appreciation she receives from her family, and her fundamental beliefs about love and happiness – all of these things are swiftly called into question, prompting Polly to feel like a stranger in her own life.

She had chosen him [Henry Demarest]. She had picked someone whose ways she knew: someone generous, kind, intelligent, and good, who loved and honored her for the excellent qualities he had come to expect and take for granted, and whose neglect, whose immersion in work, whose abstraction when engaged in work she was expected, as she had been trained, to accept, accommodate, and lighten when she could. Could it be that she had never been happy doing this? That this role had always been a burden? That she had never felt at ease in her family or cherished by her husband? (p. 107)

Polly realises that she loves Lincoln very deeply, that he is becoming vital to her happiness and her own sense of self. Until now, Polly’s view of happiness has been constructed around family – building a family, keeping it running smoothly, celebrating events and successes, being there to resolve the difficulties. For Polly, married life has been about ‘loyalty, unity and strength’, providing goods and services, to the detriment of any noticeable feelings of warmth and affection.

As Polly wrestles with these issues, she risks being overcome with a combination of guilt, confusion and remorse over her affair with Lincoln. She still loves Henry and knows in her heart of hearts that he is the perfect partner; however, she also feels desperately isolated in her marriage. The maelstrom of emotions Polly experiences is brilliantly captured for the reader.

Ultimately, Colwin manages to bring Polly’s dilemma (and the novel itself) to an elegant resolution, one where Polly begins to challenge her mother’s overly critical views and slyly controlling behaviour. There is a confrontation of sorts between Polly and her husband too, a heart-to-heart where Polly reveals how just how neglected and unloved she has been feeling in the construct of their marriage.

Alongside the perceptive insights into family dynamics, the pin-sharp characterisation and the piercing self-questioning Polly subjects herself to, there are some wonderful touches of humour here – the wry brand of comedy Dorian promised me in his letter. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that highlights this aspect of Colwin’s prose.

In this scene, Paul’s wife, Bente – an annoying Swiss psychiatrist who is obsessed with creating a ‘placid birth environment’ for her children – has just given birth to twins. Unsurprisingly, she is another character who causes Polly significant angst with her fixed views on families and motherhood. 

Meanwhile, Henry Sr., reported, Paul had given specific orders. To ensure continuance of the placid birth environment, Beate would not see visitors at the hospital, nor would she see them for the first two weeks at home.

“According to the Dr. Ping,” said Henry Sr., “the babies must be kept in a softly lit room, with soft music, and wrapped in soft cotton blankets, I think Paul said.”

“Maybe they should keep them in the fridge,” said Henry, Jr. (p. 270)

Family Happiness is published by Harper Perennial; personal copy.